Freshman duo making noise for Illini soccer

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

In the 63rd minute of Friday’s Illinois soccer game against Purdue, freshman Vanessa DiBernardo was substituted out in order to rest.

DiBernardo had already scored in the 24th minute when Purdue’s attempt to clear the ball landed at the Naperville, Ill., native’s feet, and she fired the ball past the Boilermakers’ goalkeeper. DiBernardo was later substituted back into the game in the 74th minute. The result? Three more goals for DiBernardo, as No. 21 Illinois beat the Boilermakers 4-1.

“The (rest) is really refreshing, just coming out, getting a breather and taking a few minutes to rest my legs,” DiBernardo said. “It really helps, and I have more energy when I go back into the games.”

DiBernardo’s four-goal performance was record-breaking — she set Illinois’ mark for most goals scored in a single game and her three second-half goals tied the record for most in a single half.

What DiBernardo isn’t getting a break from are the accolades she keeps piling up. She is now tied for second among Division-I soccer players for most points in a game this year. Her feat also earned her both Big Ten Freshman of the Week and the conference’s Offensive Player of the Week honors. DiBernardo now ranks first in points (20) and goals (9) in the Big Ten.

“One of the things we talked to Vanessa about was not getting too tight on top or our front-runners because when she did that, she didn’t have space to attack the ball,” Illini head coach Janet Rayfield said. “She scored four goals on Friday night, three of those attacking the ball and being behind the ball when she was in the box, so I’m very proud of her. If she can continue to go out and work hard and play, the performances will keep coming and with that, probably the accolades.”

While DiBernardo scored all of Illinois’ goals Friday, she wasn’t the only one who took charge when it came to scoring this weekend for the Illini.

Forty minutes into Sunday’s game against Indiana, DiBernardo found herself controlling the ball at the top of the Indiana box. She proceeded to thread the ball through the Hoosier defense as fellow freshman Megan Pawloski was rushing toward the net. Pawloski gained control and placed her shot into the lower-left side of the goal to give the Illini the 1-0 lead. Less than two minutes later, Pawloski doubled the Illini lead when Kassidy Brown, also a freshman, crossed the ball into the left side of the box. There, Pawloski rushed on the goal and headed the shot over Indiana’s goalkeeper to put the Orange and Blue ahead, 2-0.

“The second goal, I have no idea how I scored it,” Pawloski said. “I didn’t think there was a chance. To score one goal in a game, let alone two, and so close together and it was really exciting. It was really nice for it to be freshman-to-freshman.”

While Pawloski’s second goal was a shock even to her, the freshman’s first goal was something Illinois had done multiple times during the previous week in practice. Rayfield also said the upperclassmen on the team deserve some credit for their younger teammate’s success.

“They’re great, this freshman class, and it’s because they have upperclassmen around them who can show them how to do it,” Rayfield said. “But I have to give credit to (the freshmen) that they can take something out of a training environment and immediately put it into a game. Whether it’s the timing of the run, the pace of the service or the spacing, their progression has really come from their ability to take information and automatically apply it.”

At 9-2-0 and 2-1-0 in the Big Ten, Illinois has finished a little over half of its regular season schedule. Now in the heart of conference play, the Illini will rely on their freshmen more than ever and will continue to do so into the future.

“A lot of people have said that this season has been a great season but what really is exciting is what the next few years this program could be like,” Rayfield said. “(Right now), they just have to go on the field and do what they do well, and follow somebody else. Soon, they’ll be telling others what you have to do outside of practice or how to take care of your body, how you take care of school or how you manage your time. It’ll be their turn at some point in time to show somebody else the ropes, and if we can pass on those attributes, then the next four years will be incredible.”